Sotheby refuses to accept Greek ownership claims

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By Ursula Kampmann
Translated by Leonie Schulze

June 7, 2018 – In order “to clarify the rights of legitimate owners,” Sotheby filed a lawsuit against the Greek Ministry of Culture in a New York court on June 4, 2018. The trigger of this case is a small sculpture worth $150,000 – $250,000. An excellent provenance has been provided for this stylized horse from the Geometric period.

The heirs of the late collectors Howard and Saretta Barnet consigned it to Sotheby. The sculpture was bought in 1973. However, said year of purchase wasn’t the first time the small horse appeared on the market. It had already changed hands at a Swiss auction in 1967.
A day before it was to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s, the Greek Ministry of Culture sent a letter to the auctioneer demanding its withdrawal and help restitute it to Greece. As has been reported by the Financial Times, the accusation included the claim that no Greek archival sources can prove that the removal of the item from the country of origin was legitimate. Thus Greece reserved the right to take legal actions should it be necessary.

The fact that the horse is mentioned in the records of Robin Symes is likely to have motivated this move. Robin Symes is suspected to have dealt in looted antiquities. It wasn’t until it had been offered at a Swiss auction in 1967, that the British art dealer purchased it.
Although Sotheby’s does not agree with the claims made by the Greek Ministry of Culture, they have nevertheless withdrawn the item – surely to protect the owners as well. Demanding the restitution of the horse shortly before the auction did not leave the auction house any time to settle the issue. Being aware of this, any bidder would have been hesitant to make an adequate offer. Many auction houses are all too familiar with matters like this one. In recent years, numerous countries that are known for their rich archaeological heritage laid claim to single lots or entire collections that later lacked any legal justification.

Sotheby’s is now going on the offensive, as the Greek ministry’s line of action has been detrimental to both the auction house and collectors. The Financial Times states that this is the first time an auction house has ever sued another country’s government. This is not entirely true since the German state of Hesse has repeatedly been charged thanks to various untenable actions of its representatives.

However, charges of this kind were not successful until those affected refrained from suing entire states, who did not care much about the penalties inflicted on them, and instead moved to indicting their representatives.

We should keep in mind that it isn’t “Greece” or the “Greek Ministry of Culture” but (fallible) individuals who made the respective decisions in recent years.

The original article was published in the Financial Times.

Here you can read about a lawsuit that a antiques dealer from Frankfurt won against the Romano-Germanic Central Museum.

Read these three articles published in CoinsWeekly to learn more about how the German state of Hesse seized and withheld a coin collection for two years and eight months.
A chronicle of the Krombach “case”
The Krombach Case – Next Act
Final Act in the Krombach “case” – Coins Restituted

These Guidelines for Coin Dealers in Dealing with the German Cultural Assets Protection Act and the Official recommendation on the new Cultural Property Protection Act will help to ensure that you act according to German law.